What if you hit pause on your career for a year? Alisha Fernandez Miranda did just that and shares her experiences in her memoir My What If Year. Elena Bowes caught up with her this month.
For anyone looking for a change in their life, this laugh out loud memoir about a harried 40-year-old CEO with eight-year-old twins who decides to become an intern for a year will inspire you to give it a go. And an intern during Covid, no less. A Harvard and LSE grad, plus perfectionist and control freak, Fernandez worked as a CEO of a social impact company she had founded with her adoring husband. As good as her life looked, she was overworked and exhausted.
After a drunken night out with girlfriends brainstorming their dream jobs, Fernandez took the plunge. With the tentative blessing of her husband and twins, she interned for a Broadway theatre (mostly filling water jugs), a London art gallery (where she learned catalogue raisonné had nothing to do with raisins) a luxurious Scottish hotel where she learned it’s OK to be really bad at something, and helping a sassy ‘we got you babes’ online fitness class which Fernandez compared to an oatmeal raisin cookie; “On the outside, you might mistake them for chocolate chip, but once you took a bite, it was clear it was misery masquerading as joy, pain pretending to be pleasure.’ (She clearly had raisins on the brain).
I caught up with Fernandez who lives in Scotland on the remote island of Skye.
What was the scariest thing you did in your What If year?
I think it might have been the part where I had to actually email or call pretty much everyone I knew to ask them for something – an internship, an introduction, advice. I had not looked for a job in a very long time and I hadn’t looked for a job that I was wholly unqualified to do in almost two decades. The fear of rejection, of being laughed at or not taken seriously, of deigning to think I could actually imagine a new life for myself? Those were the scariest bits. It made polishing sharp knives at Kinloch Lodge seem like a piece of cake.
And the most embarrassing?
Nearly every day at Kinloch Lodge held at least one embarrassing moment. I’m going to go for a three-way tie between nearly checking someone into the (wrong) room where a guest was relaxing au natural; serving coffee and petit fours with my fly completely down; and practically setting my boob on fire at dinner.
While you are no longer an intern, can you describe lessons learned, namely what you call the ‘spirit of the intern’?
The spirit of the intern for me was about realising that I had gotten too comfortable and too safe in my choices. I had convinced myself that I couldn’t do anything different, couldn’t take any risks or try new things when in fact, the opposite was true. Spending a year as an intern reminded me that it truly is never too late to make a change.
Nowadays, I ask myself four questions when I am making decisions, both personal and professional, about how to spend my time: Will I learn from this? Will I enjoy it? Will it make me uncomfortable? Is there a high chance of failure? If the answer is yes to more than one, I’ll give it a try. Even Ninja Warrior, which I attempted recently with my kids: discomfort, check; failure likely, check. Fun – well, it was an experience! And I’m glad I did it (even if I’ll never go back).
And while I’m not currently an intern any longer I hope there are more internships in my future. Disney are you listening? I’m ready!
You say that being an intern at 40 is better than at 20. Why?
Perspective! And life experience. When I interned at 20, it was a means to an end, a steppingstone to the next thing. All I wanted was to do the job, be done, then do the next job. I climbed and climbed without really stopping to take in the view.
But at 40, there was no next title to chase. I was genuinely there to learn and enjoy myself. I slowed down and listened; I paid attention. As I result, I think I had a much richer and more rewarding experience than I would have ever had at 20.
You describe yourself as an aggressive people-pleaser. Has that changed after your year of magical thinking?
I wish that I could say yes, but I think some habits are so deeply ingrained in us that they take more than a year to unravel. I will say I have gotten better. Maybe now I’m not an aggressive people-pleaser so much as a “mild people-pleaser.” But I am more aware of it. I catch myself regularly and remind myself of why I’m doing something, why I’m saying yes. Is it because I want to? Or I feel like I have to?
All of the changes I have made in my life as a result of my year have been challenging to sustain! They require being intentional about things, and not slipping back into old habits. But don’t worry, one of these days I will embrace my full Rizzo.
You mention that your adorable-sounding husband Carlos was considering interning as a coffee roaster? That you had started a movement. Did that come to pass?
I’m working on it! Change starts at home, right? Carlos still wants to transition into working in the food business (coffee for sure and his new love, making ramen), but life and work have postponed this adventure. That doesn’t stop me from nagging him to take an internship.
I do think there are bubbles of a movement starting. A 60-something-year-old woman who attended an event in Atlanta told me that her favourite local bridal shop was hiring. She had always loved weddings and loved this shop and My What If Year inspired her to apply. Now she works there part-time!
In terms of writing, what was the hardest part of writing this book? And the easiest?
I think every writer is different, but I found the writing part the easiest and the editing part the hardest.
Once I started telling my story, I kind of couldn’t stop. I loved putting the words down on the page. Sometimes I would write for hours and hours, locking myself in my bedroom and opening the door only for coffee deliveries from my children.
But I’m a “done is better than perfect” type of person, so the revisiting again and again was tough for me. I would constantly yell at poor Carlos, my first reader: “What do you mean it’s not XYZ enough? It’s perfect DAMMIT.” But, of course, he would be right; each new draft was better than the last.
The other hard part for me was accessing the deep, sad places where I was before I started. When I first started working on this project, I told myself I was writing a light, happy, fun adventure where nothing sad or bad would ever happen. But in turning it into a narrative, I had to access those darker emotions to bring the reader along with me on my journey. As a person who likes to keep things light, happy and fun in general, I struggled with that. But it has made me a better writer – and a better person – in the end.
Did you read any memoirs to help you craft your own? If so, which ones?
SO many! I read the life stories of fierce, funny women (Bossypants by Tina Fey; Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? By Mindy Kaling; More than a Woman by Caitlin Moran) and a bunch of memoirs that took the reader behind the scenes of a particular profession (This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky, Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton).
But I have to call out a personal favourite, Cork Dork. It’s the story of how Bianca Bosker decides to give up her life as a tech reporter and train her palate to become a master sommelier. It’s a brilliant book but was also an inspiration. She was having her own what if year, albeit drunker.
At what point did you decide to write about your What If year? Did you keep a journal?
I was an avid journaler growing up but since having kids it had fallen to the wayside, like so many interests of mine! But I knew my internship experience was going to be something extraordinary that I would want to remember. I kept notes on what I did every day, and each night before bed tried to write a “Dear Diary” entry.
When COVID cut short my first internship, I was so down in the dumps about it. My husband encouraged me to try and turn it into a story; when I started writing, it was like it unlocked something. I was able to better process what had happened, what was happening; and more than that, I loved it. I think writing memoir is the best free therapy!
I often ask this question, but I am especially curious now – what’s next?
Well, in the spirit of being uncomfortable I’m trying not to plan too much – but it’s not easy for me. There are some exciting things in the works for My What If Year, and I’m working on a novel (which has certainly met my criteria for being uncomfortable and possibly failing!). But also I’m enjoying the opportunity to meet so many people as a result of the book, on tour and online – it’s been an unexpected joy.
Thank you so much for answering these questions. You are an inspiration, and I’m sure readers will love to learn more from you.